"The Train of Their Departure" by David Bezmozgis Originally published in the August 9, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m finally catching up! And what a delight to finally get to this story.
In the beginning we learn that Polina and Alec are married:
In the spring of 1976, before the start of their affair, before he became her husband, before she knew anything about him, Polina had noticed Alec in one or another of the V.E.F. buildings, always looking vaguely, childishly amused.
We take a quick step back to when their affair started and Marina Kirilovna, one of Polina’s co-workers who “liked to say that the only joy she’d got out of living with [her husbands] had been outliving them,” calls her a fool for considering Alec. Polina is in a stable relationship with a very stable husband, who, sure, isn’t such a catch, but still. Marina even thinks Polina might be engaging in this illicit affair in order to gain a promotion:
At the word “promotion,” Polina almost laughed. The suggestion of some ulterior motive for the affair, particularly ambition, was risible in a way that the widow could not have imagined. First, the mere idea of ambition in the factory was ludicrous. Thousands of people worked there, and — with the exception of the Party members — none of them had a salary worth envying. But, beyond that, if anything had led her to consider Alec’s overtures it was her husband’s ambition — insistent, petty, and bureaucratic.
We then take a larger step back to the days before Polina and Maxim (her first husband, the one she will be unfaithful to) were married. Their courtship takes up quite a portion of this story, and it is fascinating and somewhat excruciating to watch as Polina accepts this formal man:
Polina didn’t encourage him but he didn’t require encouragement. He courted her with the measured discipline of a person climbing a long flight of stairs.
Their relationship is very cold (“Reason, or its pale ambassador convention, ruled Polina and Maxim’s time together”). Even when they begin having sex, there is still a vast distance between them, and an acute lack of passion:
Polina couldn’t say that she was eager to take this next and inevitable step with Maxim, but she did wonder when he would grant himself the license to do it. During their gropings and fumblings she felt like a spectator, watching Maxim as he denied himself for the sake of her honor. These preliminary bouts always ended with Maxim apologizing for the liberties he had taken.
Eventually, we know, Maxim and Polina get married. Then Alec comes along. Since Maxim is pretty much a fool, Polina allows Alec into her life.
Now, we know from the beginning that this affair is going to happen and that Polina will leave Maxim and marry Alec. There is a lot of other things going on between the lines. As KFC says in the first comment below, “Bezmozgis establishes Polina’s basic powerlessness — and the price she pays with both her husband and Alec in using the one bit of power that she does control.” This was the fascinating part for me. I felt the story was very successful.